Learning Myths

Why do we in Learning and Development love myths so much? Things like: 

When faced with the mysteries of learning, it’s as if we lose control of our senses and accept the first pop-psychological explanation that comes our way. 

But I detect signs of a fight-back, a stiffening of the intellectual muscle of the L&D community – and it started last Thursday when I was on tube… 

 … I was all dressed up in my black tie on the way to the Dorchester for the IITT’s annual awards. Checking Twitter on my phone at Hammersmith I noticed that Jane Bozarth was trailing a #lrnchat session on the myths of learning. I couldn’t attend the online conversation because it was too late (1am – 3am UK time), but the session has rightly generated a slew of interest in the myths believed and perpetuated in our community. Paul Simbeck-Hampson has been editing the highlights and they will be posted on the lrnchat blog soon.

Are we really on the way to cleaning up our act and being more critical in what we do? I hope so. Will Thalheimer has been doing his bit in this field for some time – his $1,000 reward for solid data on learning styles remains unclaimed, I believe. 

In truth, I’m not sure that I quite agree with Will’s position about learning styles, but that’s okay, because I’m gathering myself for a debate on this later this year – that means doing some reading, some understanding, some polling of expert opinion, preparing to engage in a well-thought through discussion, in contrast to the ‘fire and forget’ commentary that too often passes for debate in our field.

And part of this business of debate is that we have to be prepared to disagree with each other politely, and to examine things we have taken to be fundamentally true for years. Donald Clark (the American, not the Scot) does this well in his recent post The True Cost of Informal Learning. Agree with him or not, he politely investigates some common assumptions and forces us to question them, and that can only be a good thing.

As a community we have to do a little more of this thoughtful questioning , and a little less easy accepting.

You are known by the company you keep, and if we mindlessly repeat something that a moment’s reflection can show to be nonsense, then we are no better than any charlatan who deliberately repeats myths only to make money by offering, for example, the lure of a mythical extra 90% brain power, or a magical increase in memory. Ignorance – in the L&D community of all places – can never be a defence.

Real learning and development professionals don’t need myths. Hard facts and good practice are enough for them.

PS [12 Feb] It’s not just us in L&D. I should have added to this text Dr Will Thalheimer’s marvellous list of Myths the Business Side Has About Learning.

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14 responses to “Learning Myths

  1. Training and Learning Myths – Thanks for the mention! The final document will be published via the #lrnchat blog. We are currently looking for volunteers to help edit, if you have an hour free this week, get in contact with Paul via the following link http://j.mp/volopp

  2. Pingback: L & D Myths

  3. I did a lot of thinking and writing about Learning Styles last year. And concluded they were probably bunk-ish. For the first time in my life, I ended up in flame wars.

    The thing I couldn’t help recalling was, though, that they were useful to me – at one time. For all of its pseudo-science, VAK is a useful mnemonic for planning teaching or training. I guess other NLP, MI, Myers-Briggs etc people must feel the same.

    You’re right, politeness, openness (and perhaps practical application) should prevail.

  4. Actually in the field of education research, I think it is entirely possible that they are only using 10% of their brains 🙂

  5. Simon, Geoff, thanks for the comments!

  6. What is challenging is that these are also generalizations which mean nothing without context. They are things to get us to sit up and pay attention, and not foolishly take as gospel.

    I agree too, that we need to challenge, but at a level of contextual relevance. Does that make any sense?

  7. Great post, Donald, highlighting an important issue.

    It’s one that’s frustrated me since starting on my career in learning and development. However, I think that it’s a symptom that points to a more general issue in society as a whole.

    Similar myths to the ones we have in L&D abound in our lives and have been explored in specific areas by the likes of Ben Goldacre, who’s done great work exposing the many myths about health issues, and Nicholas Nasim Taleb when he looked at the intellectual basis for the working practices of investors and traders (before the Credit Crunch).

    Everyone, it seems, likes simple concepts or the idea of a silver bullet; complexity is treated with distain.

    So, we should perhaps be less harsh on our profession since it seems pretty clear that this kind of lazy thinking is apparent is most areas of life and work – though we should definitely continue to challenge it.

    The key questions for me are “why is this so widespread and how do we combat it?” It does seem like there’s a general lack of critical thinking skills across L&D when it comes to evaluating and gathering evidence.

    There’s no easy answer, but perhaps we should be looking at the skills gaps the profession has and asking how we plug them.

    I’m not one to advocate purely pursuing activities for which we have an evidence base, progress would slow to a crawl if we did that. However, it’s definitely time that more of us understood better when we do have evidence and when we don’t.

  8. Hi Nancy – yes, I *think* I understand what you mean. Context has to be crucial to any statement on learning – in some contexts you might really only remember 10% of what you read. In others less, in others more.

    Owen – several good points well made. The one that stands out for me is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much and try to do everything based on data which doesn’t (yet) exist.

  9. Yup, Donald. I think you catch my drift.

    For example, I often work in contexts where people are not using their first language. So all these things are completely turned on their heads. Yet the message they remind me of is to PAY ATTENTION! What is happening with people. So these truisms may also be useful heuristics as long as we don’t see them as gospel or as the only factors we need to attend to.

    My problem these days is I can’t seem to remember ANYTHING!!!

  10. Hi Don, hows things?

    As far as myths go … my position is I use them if the ends justify the means. I am happy to back my experience and intuition that an approach will work. Thats what I’m paid for.

    I do however try to be open and honest enough to flag that I am using a rule of thumb that I believe in not that it is an incontrovertible fact.

    On the subject of myths.

    Does anyone know if the 70:20:10 rule has any factual support. (i.e. effective personal development is through a blend of 70% opportunity (e.g. more challenging role / developmental task in current role), 20% coaching, mentoring, real-time feedback, and 10% structured (courses, reading,personal learning).

    I have seen this quoted to drive resource and budget allocation discussions during a L&D planning processes – but it was not backed up with any source.

  11. The myths & truths summary has now been posted, it’s live and available on the #Lrnchat Blog – your comments would be welcome. http://bit.ly/bEoutc

  12. Hi Peter,

    There are a huge range of figures given to demonstrate the contribution of ‘informal learning’. Tracking down the source of these figures is an extended research project in itself. The most reputable source seems to be a 1994 report for the US Department of Labor Statistics (Informal Training: A Review of Existing Data and Some New Evidence, Lowenstein & Spencer, 1994). However, many commentators cherry pick the data from this fairly technical paper and put the total contribution of informal learning at around 80%. This doesn’t give the whole picture and in some organisations the number will be lower, in many it will be higher.

    Despite that, the research base backing the importance of informal type learning is growing. A recent survey of managers conducted by ComRes showed that informal methods of learning were used most frequently and were most valued: http://bit.ly/ck6J7k. While the numbers will be endlessly debated, there can’t be much doubt that a significant proportion of learning activity in any given organisation is informal in nature.

    Hope that helps a bit.

  13. There’s an excellent review of 13 of the more commonly used learning style theories, including Myers-Briggs, Kolb, and Herrmann.
    It was published in 2004 by the Learning and Skills Research Center, and although it’s a bit academic in parts, it’s well worth an evening or two to read and mull over. The report is called ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review’ and though I can’t find the URL to hand, there’s a free PDF copy downloadable from the University of Hull website if I remember correctly.

  14. Looking forward to digging a little deeper into the PDF, thanks for the tip Alex… here’s the direct link for others.

    http://www.hull.ac.uk/php/edskas/learning%20styles.pdf

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